Few stories boast enough dramatic staying power to capture our collective imagination almost a century after publication, but Agatha Christie’s 1934 classic novel Murder on the Orient Express is one such tale.
In The Very Little Theater’s fall production, we begin in Sofia, Bulgaria, as famous detective Hercule Poirot (Achilles Massahos) procures a last-minute ticket from his friend Monsieur Bouc (David Smith) aboard the sold-out Orient Express. When a murder is committed and a snowdrift halts the train, Poirot must solve the case to prevent further bloodshed. The colorful international array of passengers aboard the train all become suspects.
Ken Ludwig’s script is funnier than any of the cinematic adaptations of Murder I’ve seen. The allure of Murder on the Orient Express stems not only from the mystery and drama, but the play’s eclectic cast of characters. Ludwig’s script plays up each character’s eccentricity, allowing for many comedic scenes.
These scenes, of course, wouldn’t draw the ready bursts of laughter from the audience without impeccable comedic timing from the cast and excellent direction by Maggie Hadley. Through Hadley’s direction, the performance is also well paced, with emotional monologues delivered in the last act with increased fervor — each filled with cleverly timed pauses after revealing lines.
Zepha Wright, in her first performance at VLT, absolutely steals the show as Mrs. Hubbard. She gives a nuanced yet hilarious performance as the tough talking American passenger with an outrageous sense of humor. Her one-liners connected with the full house audience, and are featured consistently as one of the highlights in the show.
Other notable performances include Massahos as the ever charming detective Poirot and Denise LaCroix as the aloof Russian Princess Dragomiroff. Massahos’ delivery of the final monologue was so well executed that audience members leapt from their seats in applause as the stage went black. “I ask myself, is this justice?” he says. “Did I do the right thing?”
LaCroix’s dry humored Princess Dragomiroff is joined by her bumbling Swedish traveling companion Greta Ohlsson (Vanessa Norman). The duo play off each other well, and the contrast between the two makes for some amusing moments.
A challenge for any stage production of Murder on the Orient Express is capturing the look and feel of a moving train. Thanks to Eric Hadley’s sound design, we are immersed in the play from the beginning. The sound of a train racing down the tracks sets up the atmosphere of the production.
Set designers Sarah Etherton and Ali McQueen have created an appealing, balanced design for the eye, with the construction of a deep wooden interior of a train cart that includes the bedrooms, a hallway and a dining room where some of the most dramatic scenes take place. The set provides an apt backdrop for the slamming of doors, sudden outbursts of tears in hallways and the discovery of a body.
This staging of Murder, like Christie’s novel, delves into questions of morality, loyalty and justice. But it also mines the play adaptation’s comedic vein, which makes for a fresh, authentic take on a beloved classic mystery. Actors deliver the dramatic moments with the necessary gravitas, but fortunately, the whodunit isn’t overly pedantic, and the steps of the investigation are broken up by quips from a talented cast.
VLT’s production is entertaining even if you know how the story ends.
Murder on the Orient Express continues through Oct. 30 at The Very Little Theater, 2350 Hilyard St. Tickets and more info at TheVLT.com.